Iran Sanctions: Options, Opportunities and Consequences

December 15, 2009

Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, I’m very grateful for the opportunity to discuss the prospects and implications of sanctions as a tool for influencing the policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Less than a year after the Obama administration began its tenure with unprecedented overtures aimed at engaging Tehran in a comprehensive diplomatic dialogue, the discourse in Washington and around the world has already shifted away from engagement toward an enthusiastic embrace of punitive measures. In no small part, this shift can be attributed to the dramatic developments within Iran since its blatantly manipulated presidential election six months ago. Those developments have splintered Iran’s leadership, further alienated its people, and generated the most vigorous popular movement for political change to confront the Islamic regime since the 1979 revolution that brought it to power. Those same domestic dynamics have outraged and inspired the international community, and added new impetus to the longstanding concerns about the regime’s policies at home and abroad.

In addition, the rapid disenchantment with engagement has been fueled by Tehran’s repeated rebuffs of both the specific proposals put forward by the United States and its allies among the P5+1 as well as the overall paradigm of dialogue. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and its infamous president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have inveighed against negotiations as a deceitful ploy intended to rob Iran of its resources and rights and have scuttled a preliminary agreement initially endorsed by their own representatives that would have temporarily mitigated international concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Given such a track record, changing course from an engagement-centric approach to one with a greater focus on economic pressure represents a clear-headed recognition of the limitations of our efforts to date and a laudable commitment to developing an effective approach for addressing the increasingly urgent concerns about Iran’s policies. Engagement was never conceived as an instant-fix for the complex and multi-faceted problems posed by Iran, and the experience of the past year has demonstrated that diplomatic overtures alone cannot overcome a bitter estrangement of three decades and the ideological imperatives of a leadership whose claims to legitimacy remain underpinned by anti-Americanism. Despite this ideology, history demonstrates that the Iranian leadership can be influenced by the relative costs and benefits of its policy choices, and the challenge for the international community today is to ensure that the costs of continuing Iranian antagonism dramatically outweigh the benefits of accommodation.

Still, amidst the renewed clamor for coercive measures, it is important to note that sanctions do not promise inherently better results for advancing U.S. policy outcomes than any other element in the toolkit. To be blunt, three decades of increasingly restrictive economic restrictions imposed on the Islamic Republic by Washington have failed to date to achieve their stated objectives of moderating Iranian policies on the key areas of American concern. While there are promising indications of a more conducive context for sanctions today, that is no guarantee of success.

The price of embarking upon another frustrating failed approach to blunting Tehran’s most destabilizing policies is not insubstantial; if sanctions fail, the available alternatives (military force or externally orchestrated regime change) portend much more dismal prospects for American interests and regional stability. The urgency surrounding Iran’s nuclear program and Tehran’s apparent determination to continue expanding its nuclear activities demands that the international community’s revised approach to Iran is framed in such a way that maximizes its prospects for achieving even the minimalist goal of decelerating Tehran’s course on this issue. Equally important, as serious discussion of more rigorous sanctions gets underway, the implications of any new measures for the future of Iran’s nascent democracy movement must be considered.

In my testimony, I will briefly sketch out the factors that may facilitate the efficacy of sanctions today, while also noting the largely unimpressive track record of economic pressure in producing desired modifications in Iranian foreign policy, particularly on issues perceived by the leadership to be within its vital security interests. I will conclude by laying out a series of principles that should guide our consideration of any new coercive measures.

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